Friday, April 19, 2013

Humanity enough

“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” 
 Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

I wrote to my Rabbi this morning. It was easier to write to him than, say, to write a "Dear God" letter, or worse, "Dear diary." But I had to write, because I am so disheartened, so saddened and sickened by the events that seem to have consumed us,  moving rough shod in a random swath of destruction and hatred and death. Here, in part, is what I wrote:

I hate what has been happening in Boston. It makes me ill, to think of this kind of carnage and innocence and hatred and loss, all rolled up together into a messy, bloody heap. Like so many, I feel impotent and aggrieved and disheartened and uplifted by the events. Heroism is such a transcendantal moment: offers of comfort to complete strangers, running one way rather than another, all of it.

It is this mounting blood-thirsty quest for vengeance that makes me shudder again, though. And it is blood thirsty: Kill them. I hope they die. Catch them and kill them. Again and again, I hear it-- not even whispered, not even a hesitant question. Just: Let me see them bloody and dead.

Is our sense of justice, and tolerance, and (for many of my friends) inflatable? So: the death penalty is a bad thing, except when we're really angry? Or scared? Tolerance is demanded, except when we need to be intolerant? I do not condone the actions of these two men. And really-- they have been tried and found guilty in our heads, in our hands-- they have not been convicted in a court of law. Isn't that supposed to mean something?

I am NOT saying these were innocent. I don't know if they were, could only guess. But my heart is breaking nonetheless. Yes, there should be justice-- but have we suddenly made a weird turn somewhere and landed back 2500 years ago-- an eye for an eye justice? Is that what we want? Is that really justice?

I'm simple, perhaps. And quite naive. And terrified to say what I really feel about all of this, for fear of instant castigation. But I always thought that goodness and justice and love and all that crap should cover all the bases, even when -- especially when -- it makes you uncomfortable and angry and sad. But all I hear right about now, is this salacious and triumphant howl of victory over more dead bodies. I guess, it's just the right bodies that are lifeless right now...

There is a quote from Gandhi that has been making its rounds on facebook over the last week, about evil individuals and the mass of decency and humanity. I quoted Anne Frank (above), reiterating her belief in the basic goodness of people, even as she hid in fear of the mob that was howling outside her door, thirsting for her blood and her death. And make no mistake, her pursuers were absolutely convinced of her guilt, of their righteousness. She was an animal to be hunted, vermin to be exterminated. She was not human.

It was Hillel who asked us to strive to be human in a place where there are no humans.

I saw the face of that terrorist, in the news feeds on my computer, and during the sound bytes on every erstwhile news program on television. That terrorist; that boy. He is not too much older than my son. I hear the howls for his blood. For his death. The cries for vengeance to be paid for the death he brought to innocents. The deaths that we are convinced he wrought. Did he? Did he commit these acts of terror and atrocity? I don’t know, with 100% certainty, that he did. As I said—we can guess, but that boy’s voice is lost forever. Who knows, perhaps, had he been captured, he would have spewed hatred and invective and confession for those horrific acts. But I cannot say for absolutely certain that he would have, and that will haunt me for a very long time.

There is a midrash, a story that our rabbis tell, about the rejoicing and jubilation that God’s angels made, when the waters of the parted Sea crashed over the Egyptians who pursued the children of Israel in their flight from slavery into freedom. The angels danced at the death and destruction, laughed as those Egyptian soldiers and taskmasters drowned, and hard-hearted Pharaoh was no more. They celebrated – until the Angel of Death silenced them with a cry of anger and pain that went all the way to God’s very center, to God’s very heart. “Why do you rejoice?” God cried out. The idolaters are dead!  replied the Angels. And God’s Angel wept, saying “Are they not God’s children, too?”

There are no easy answers. Terrorism and violence must be eradicated. But we cannot accomplish this at the expense of our humanity. We must not, or what will we have become? 

In a place where there are no humans, let us all strive to be human...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Light enough (to change the World)

Long ago, I quit graduate school to become a political activist.  I had been working on a PhD in Early Modern English History-- Tudors and Stewarts and Puritans, oh my!  I was totally gung-ho, until I realized that almost the only people who care about Early Modern English History are other Early Modern English historians.  I gave up my full Fellowship to–as my parents so eloquently put it– become a professional street walker and erstwhile  beggar.

I was filled with a burning desire to fight the Good Fight.  I would be Don Quixote; but unlike my hero,  I was going to win my battles rather than simply tilt at stray windmills.  Five years and several thousand miles later, having traversed the country a dozen or so times, I quit the national poor people’s organization for whom I had been working, a little bedraggled, a lot broke and much bewildered.  I kept looking around for all that I had accomplished, all that we, as an organization, had accomplished, and saw… the detritus of really good intentions.

We fought to give people a voice, to find strength and power in numbers.  We got a few stop signs put up, a handful of crack houses boarded up or torn down.  We got enough press that Mayors and Police Chiefs learned to take our calls and listen to our demands.  Mostly though— we demonstrated on bread and butter issues that fed our souls and fired us up.  I was so determined to Save The World and Make A Difference, but really, what I was doing was drowning in a sea of windmills and broken lances.

The issues that plagued us twenty-five, thirty years ago, when I was young(er) and rousing rabble eighty hours a week or more— they’ve grown.  The rift between the Haves and the Have Nots is wider and more treacherous than ever.  Poverty.  Ignorance.  Hunger.  Disease.  Global Warming.  Hatred.  War.  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?  I wish! They are legion, these Horsemen, and they spread devastation in their wake.  They've had a few millenia to gain in power and scope.  Human history is the story of our inhumanity, a desolate and sere desert of indifference and despair.  My fear whispers for me to throw up my hands in surrender to the enormity of the task, to just walk away.  The need is so great.  I could be devoured by this need that grows daily and swallows hope.

It would be so easy to turn away from this overwhelming and insatiable need.

I could, but I don’t.  Instead, I do what I can.  I light a candle, a flicker of hope in this darkness, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings that becomes a storm.  The task may seem insurmountable, but I can’t avoid it.  The Talmud tells us: “It is not your duty to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot, 2:16,15)

My job, as I see it, as I have been taught, is to light the candles and flap my wings.  Again and again and again— because I can, because I must.  Because I change the world every time I do.  And all those candles, mine and yours and on and on— they light the darkness and beat back despair.  They kindle hope:  A stop sign.  A voice.  Hope where there once was none.  It is the best of our humanity.

Are we our brother’s keepers?  Yes.  Having a roof over your head is a right, not a privilege.  Access to medical care, or clean water to drink, or food on the table— all of that is a right, not a privilege.  And no, before some of you get on that high horse of fiscal certitude: no, I don’t have an answer on how to pay for all this. I just know that we must.  It is our humanity at stake, and how could we turn away from that?  How could I look into my son’s eyes if I turned my back on such need? How can I not pass this candle flame to him?

And my son, my fourteen year old— he wants to house the poor and feed the hungry and fight for justice.  He has learned that he has his own candles to light.  He may not solve the riddles of poverty or ignorance or hatred, but he knows, in the face of all that desperate need and billowing despair, he can light a candle or two in the darkness, because he can, because he must, because he, too, can save the world. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hope, enough (or: Breadcrumbs at the Crossroads)

I have a friend who is going through some big and scary stuff: life-altering, soul-changing, potentially transformative and possibly transcendant stuff.   “I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what will happen.  I feel so alone,” she said.   Her pain was palpable.

God, I know that place-- that sticky, scary, prickly place. Crossroads? I wish it were as simple as that! That place isn't a fork in the road; it's a whole damned service for twelve, all jumbled and junk-drawer worthy, a snake pit of messy choice. It isn't dark. Dark implies the possibility of something not-dark. This is the total absence of light. It is a teetering precipice, the pain of the present licking at your feet, coiling upwards, while the fear of the unknown breathes hot and harsh on your skin and presses you down,

This place is alone.

My friend's words take me back to my early days in recovery.  I spent hours in those neeting rooms, on beat-up couches, drinking horrible coffee, breathing in air that reeked of cigarette smoke and bleach and stale sweat.  Hours upon hours of shiny happy people and their endless chatter, who had miraculously been plucked from the depths of their despair and given new life.   New hope.  And they passed it on to me.  Headier than any wine, more intoxicating than any drink I’d ever guzzled.  Hope.  In the telling of their stories, I found hope.
“I’ve been there,”  they all said, in some iteration or other.

No fanfare, no drama.  Just this quiet moment of intimate connection.  They’d all been there— that same place where I had stood, rooted and lost and broken and alone.  It may have looked different from the outside– some talked of boardrooms on Wall Street, others of a gutter in the slums– those exteriors were facades that hid our utter devastation from public view.  How could I not find healing in these words?  How could I not take hope?  They sat pretty comfortably in their own skins, putting one foot in front of the other.  Moving, acting, choosing, deciding.  Feeling.  Feeling everything.  Not drinking.  Not drinking.  And they shared that all, with me, with each other, every day, endlessly, hour after hour.  It got so I believed I could do all that too.

And after the hours and hours of bad coffee and stale smoke and endless, hopeful chatter, they left. And I went home.  Alone. Home, to an empty apartment that echoed.   Home, to sit and think and climb the walls, to feel the silence pound.  While I didn’t crawl into a bottle, I climbed into my head, taking refuge in that nightmare landscape of my own creation, with this chorus singing hollowly, keeping me company: In the end  I stand here alone. For all their laughter and sharing and connection, I come home alone.  And who will be there to catch me when I fall, when I fail?

I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what will happen.  I feel so alone.

That place.  That fear.  That place that is absent of light.  I know this place all too well.

In the end, we are all of us alone.  But here’s the miracle, that bit of grace within that singular moment of clarity: there are breadcrumbs.  Strewn along that rocky, tortuous, treacherous path, with all its traps and quicksand and trails that go nowhere and the scary monsters who hide behind the poison-spitting trees, there are breadcrumbs.   There are stories and connections and hope, left for us by those who’ve gone before.  And if we’re lucky— really, really lucky— there are hands to hold in the darkness, torches placed along the way.

Yes, I take my leaps alone.  Yes, even now, I can stand rooted in the muddy, messy Middle, unable to go back, afraid to move forward.  But there is hope.  Grace.  Hands to hold, torches that shine.  And should I fail, should I fall, I will be caught.  God, or some Higher Power whose name I don’t yet know will allow me rest and comfort until I’m ready to go it again.

I’m here, I tell my friend.  Feel free to fly, to fall.  To hope.  I’ve been there my friend.  I’ll be waiting for you, breadcrumbs in hand,  and hope enough to share.

Monday, April 8, 2013

God Drunk

God-drunk, and reeling
Falling up
Filled with fire
     with light
          with breath.

Shattered and remade

fractured with light, 

with fire
and flooded with God.
Drunk with God, and reeling,
Touching stars
     tasting fire
          free falling


Emptied and flooded together
drunk and reeling
and filled with God

and filled 
with an agony of light,
a ceaseless glory
burning into emptiness
to be filled and flooded
and falling and again (again)

and again

and again 


and again

and again

and again
a ceaseless agony of glory
     an eternal fire
          an everlasting sacrifice.